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School districts are watching your kids online

KUTV Park City High School 052417.JPG
School districts are watching your kids online (FILE Photo: KUTV)

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) - When a Park City High School student logs onto his or her school-issued tablet, most are aware that someone out there is watching.

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"The school will flag you and send their own email just saying this has been seen,” said Josh Stone.

He said it’s called being “gaggled," which is a slang term used to describe the services of a company called Gaggle.

Gaggle computers scan through a student's online homework, essays, chats, emails, and calendars, checking them against the company’s banned words list.

If the algorithm finds words like “kill, or “gun,” Gaggles' human monitors will investigate. If necessary, Gaggle will notify school administrators. Gaggle doesn’t monitor social media directly, but if a student gets a message from his or her Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat or Twitter account, those human monitors can read it.

John Mejia, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said:

There certainly are the possibilities of bad actors using students' personal information against them in a way that would be harmful to that student.

Mejia is concerned that one of those human monitors at Gaggle might misuse a student's personal information.

Melinda Colton, with Park City schools, one of two districts in Utah that use the service, says Gaggle employees only know a student's name and sometimes the school.

"Only the most senior and security expert at Gaggle, maybe a few at a time, not a hundred-plus, have access to this information," she said.

Colton said Gaggle employees tell the school district when they believe they’ve uncovered cases of bullying or if a student is considering suicide. She said if Gaggle comes upon any of these indicators, the district can act fast to get a student help.

If it saves one student, that’s a product that is well worth it to us.

Federal law requires filters on school internet services to block out things like pornography.

2News Beyond the Books education unit discovered that at least 24 school districts and charter schools across the state have opted for multiple layers of online security.

In fact, since 2017, Utah schools spent $244,000 on private monitoring companies, like Gaggle, who watch at least some aspect of a student’s computer usage.

But, none of the services seem to be as invasive as Gaggle. In the last 16 months, Gaggle has looked into 515 cases of questionable online content at Box Elder School District and 381 at Park City Schools.

Beyond the Books has talked to several students at Park City High School. Every one of them has been “gaggled.”

One student said he was warned by the school district after he did research on a murder case for a school assignment.

Another student told 2News he got an email warning him to be careful of what he is looking at online after he sent a YouTube clip of the NBC sitcom “The Office” to a friend using his school-issued tablet. The student told us he was flagged because the clip had the word “ass” in the title.

"Getting in trouble with your school is not good for your future as a student,” Mejia said.

He said even more concerning than students getting warnings from school administrators, is a student accepting that being watched by the state is normal.

It's certainly very troubling to us that future generations of American students would start to think that it's ‘OK’ and just to expect it's part of their everyday life.

Colton said this is a trade-off the district is willing to make.

"It's a balance. It's a balance between those two: privacy and safety. And I think ultimately, safety and security is the one that wins."

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